Film review – Men in Black 3 (2012)

21 May 2012
Men in Black 3: Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Josh Brolin)

Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Josh Brolin)

Filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld returns to the Men in Black films ten years after the second part and fifteen years after the original. As there hasn’t been any real sense of demand for this franchise to be continued, it does feel like an odd move. Then again, Sonnenfeld has had an odd career beginning notably as a cinematographer for Joel and Ethan Coen (not to be confused with Men in Black 3 co-writer Etan Coen) and then frequently emulating other directors. His Addams Family films (1991 and 1993) feel a little like Tim Burton works, Get Shorty (1995) seems in Quentin Tarantino mode and the Men in Black films are a bit like something Joe Dante might do. Ironically the film where a ‘Sonnenfeldesque’ visual style most shines through is Wild Wild West (1999), an attempt at Western era steampunk that is a complete mess.

Men in Black 3 returns to the fictional world from Lowell Cunningham’s comic book series, where secret agents monitor and cover-up alien activity on Earth. This instalment introduces a time travel plot, where Agent J (Will Smith) travels back to 1969 to stop an alien from assassinating his partner Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones in 2012 and Josh Brolin in 1969). The very casual changing-the-future-by-changing-the-past narrative evokes Back to the Future (1985); this time suggesting Robert Zemeckis is the director whom Sonnenfeld is taking his cues from. And sadly, like many of Sonnenfeld’s films, it doesn’t hold up to its influences. While flawed logic can be found in Back to the Future and other time travel film narratives, they still possess a suspension of disbelief and internal logic that suits the context of the film. The very confused idea of what aspects of time travel affects what recalls the convoluted Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (Jay Roach, 1999), but without the knowing winks to the audience. There is even one moment in Men in Black 3 when the time travel device is used to reset a moment, which completely breaks the logic of the film.

Nevertheless, there is still a lot to like and aspects of the time travel narrative do work well. A character who exists in the 5th dimension and therefore can simultaneously see multiple realities and timelines is used both comically and in moments of poignancy. The previously unresolved explanation of why K recruited J in the first place is also finally explained, providing the film with an unexpected note of sentimentality that works surprisingly well even if it is overly foreshadowed. That moment plus the chance to have Josh Brolin play a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones provide the best justification for why this sequel was made. On the other hand, the promise of using the idea to send an elite African American agent back to 1969 to comment on the history of America’s civil rights movement is not fulfilled apart from one middling early scene where Agent J encounters a pair of racist cops. Missed opportunities to provide any real substance in this film are frustrating.

Otherwise, Men in Black 3 is a series of okay gags and okay action sequences, with enough elements to make it moderately enjoyable. Completely against type, Jemaine Clement is a lot of fun as the villainous Boris the Animal and Michael Stuhlbarg is great as Griffin, the creature who lives in the 5th dimension. Emma Thompson as Agent O is mostly underused, although she does get one fun moment where she maintains a completely straight face while speaking in an absurd alien language. All the elements are there for this to be a great science-fiction/comedy, but it never truly engages. Annoyingly it continues the gag that all slightly unusual or creative people are actually aliens, which hints at an underlying conservatism. Perhaps if the film celebrated difference and strangeness more, rather than always presenting it as something to laugh at or arrest, then Men in Black 3 could live up to the potential that Sonnenfeld has always showed, but never quite delivered.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – A Serious Man (2009)

21 November 2009

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg)

For 25 years now Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading) have been making stylish and meticulously constructed films that reveal their deep love and knowledge of cinema. Frequently working in the screwball comedy and film noir genres, the Coen brothers have made films that toyed with generic conventions and delightfully undermined audience expectations. Occasionally they make radically non-genre films such as their 1991 masterpiece Barton Fink, which still stands as their most personal and expressive film. Not only does Barton Fink contain the Coen brothers’ dark and absurd sense of humour and existential view of the universe but it also touches on their Jewish identity. Now comes A Serious Man, which is very much one of the Coen brothers’ more left-of-field personal projects and it contains the most thorough examination of their Jewish background to date.

Set in a suburb in the American Mid West in 1967, A Serious Man depicts a world that on the surface appears to be one of complete ordinariness.  In the centre of this world is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) a college professor whose son is preparing for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. Despite not having actually done anything to cause any ripples in the universe, Larry’s entire life soon begins to tumble around him. His wife asks for a divorce, his professional integrity is challenged and his troubled brother appears even more troubled than originally suspected. Larry turns to a series of rabbis for moral and spiritual advice on how to get over these calamities and live his life as a good and serious man.

Larry and Judith Gopnik (Sari Lennick)

As you would expect from a Coen brother’s film every single aspect contained within A Serious Man is deliberate and carefully compiled. The shots are composed perfectly and not since Punch-Drunk Love has music been used so effectively to give such incredible tension to what appears on screen to be mundane interactions. A Serious Man is a film that will get under your skin unexpectedly and stay in your mind long after its astonishing final shot abruptly cuts to the end credits. Somewhere in this puzzle of a film is a parable about perception, meaninglessness, moral accountability, faith, coping with what life throws at you and Jefferson Airplane lyrics. It is a film to be intuitively understood on an almost gut level and discussing it at length later to unravel its nuances is part of the pleasure of seeing such a film. A Serious Man is a rich, darkly humorous and spellbinding addition to the incredible contribution that Joel and Ethan Coen have made to contemporary cinema.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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